Dear potash, you may now kiss the bride

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Until recently, Potash and shale gas in New Brunswick have gone together like a horse and carriage if not, precisely, love and marriage.

But are we now witnessing from the sidelines of a new provincial Jobs Board – more concerned with marrying this region’s disparate economic opportunities than allowing their pervasive separations to widen – the opening gambit of some type of betrothal in the natural resources sector?

Politically, Liberal Premier Brian Gallant’s stern insistence on slapping a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing was a smart move. His Tory predecessors had utterly bungled the file with the predictable result of having neutralized any chance of engendering informed debate, let alone winning hearts and minds on either side of the controversial issue.

Those opposed to the practice of exploding rock deep beneath the ground to extract natural gas, potentially poisoning drinking water, relied on Internet research (some compelling good, some stunningly bad) to reinforce their intractability.

Those who supported the practice, believing that it could be safe as long as regulations in this province were tougher and more reliable than any found in the developed world, remained bewildered by the road blocks and burning police cruisers at Rexton, N.B., in the summer and fall of 2013.

And, as usual in these sort of contretemps, never the twain would meet.

Economically, though, Mr. Gallant’s “wait-and-see” policy regarding shale gas development (Is it benign? Can a social license be negotiated with affected communities? What’s the long-term, dollars-and-cents impact on the province’s finances?) is running down the clock.

The debt clock, that is: hundreds-of-millions of dollars in annual deficits; a $12-billion long-term debt that no degree of public-sector austerity will settle without robust, private-sector economic growth.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Grit government is now talking boldly about vastly expanding potash mining in the province.

In an exclusive for Brunswick News Inc., Adam Huras reports this week that the Province “will issue a request for proposals. . .to explore a massive stretch of land in southern New Brunswick it believes could be home to the province’s next potash mine.”

The area in question reportedly incorporates more than 24,000 hectares (240 million square meters) of land less than an hour’s drive north of Saint John.

Question: What do potash mining operations here use to power their facilities? Answer: hydraulically fracked shale gas.

Another question: Why? Another answer: Because it’s reliable, plentiful and, frankly, cheaper than any alternative.

Now, when a provincial government raises the possibility of opening up its public pocketbook to help finance a major expansion of a demonstrably successful resource industry in order to create good, sustainable, long-term jobs, the long bet appreciates that said government must also understand the importance of the fuel supply said resource industry deploys to justify embroidering its business plan.

It also stands to reason that Mr. Gallant’s cabinet and Jobs Board recognize that any move, on government’s part, to so convincingly enlarge a sector that depends on shale gas will goose opinion about the energy supply (for and against) in the public square, regardless of any moratorium.

Inevitably, that means a conversation – one that ended, unproductively, when the Grit team took office last fall.

Naturally, the talking points from the premier’s office, over the next few days, will tow the party line. No, we haven’t changed our minds, they will say. Yes, we believe there exist legitimate questions about the safety of hydraulic fracturing. Of course, until we know the truth, we will not act precipitously.

Still, that’s what every marriage broker says when he or she is conducting their due diligence.

Will the groom behave honorably? Will the bride comport herself in the best interests of her extended family and community?

How deliciously ironic that those who signed the first divorce papers might now officiate at the new wedding?

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